BOOK (1958)

Rewind book: Suddenly Last Summer, by Tennessee Williams

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 June, 2013, 5:09pm

Suddenly, Last Summer

by Tennessee Williams

New Directions

Suddenly Last Summer is a short play by Tennessee Williams, distinguished by its heated atmosphere and sensational plot.

The action is set, Williams' stage directions dictate, between "late summer and early fall". Its atmosphere is one of humid claustrophobia. The location is a Victorian mansion of the Gothic style, which opens out into a "jungle-garden … steaming with heat after rain". The bright "violent" colours, and sounds of "savage" animals (beasts, serpents, birds) all prepare the stage for an intense and deeply personal drama about madness, hidden sexuality and family dysfunction.

The play centres on two characters: Mrs Violet Venable and her niece, Catharine Holly, whose lives are united by the mysterious death of Violet's son, Sebastian, in Europe. Gradually, we realise the wealthy Violet is insisting that Catharine be lobotomised to prevent her "babbling" about Sebastian's final days.

Violet's motivations are as dense and dark as Williams' setting. Having spent years locked in a suffocatingly intimate relationship with Sebastian, she feels their relationship was ruined by the young woman's intervention. In her grief, she blames both equally, but can avenge herself only on the living.

This disturbing desire to have Catharine's memory erased in a truly risky operation had deep personal roots for Williams: his own sister, Rose, was lobotomised on the orders of their mother.

Understandably perhaps, it is Catharine's appearance that shreds the emotions. On her release from hospital, she is taken to the Venable home to be assessed by a doctor as to whether to operate or not.

The truth emerges from her increasingly hysterical speeches, delivered restlessly to Sister Felicity. Having hidden his homosexuality all his adult life, she reveals, Sebastian became voraciously promiscuous: "That one's delicious looking, that one's appetising." These images of appetite and consumption reach a shocking, melodramatic climax. Catharine is given a truth serum and reveals that Sebastian was eaten by cannibals in the Spanish town of Cabeza de Lobo, having tried to pay them for sexual favours.

Suddenly Last Summer's brew of money, sex, violence, power and dysfunctional families is typical Williams. The playwright drew on various Greek myths for his extraordinary conclusion, as well as his own fraught childhood.